Artist: Joy Division
Title: She’s Lost Control
Description: album track, Unknown Pleasures; b-side, Atmosphere
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979
How important were Joy Division to me? Vital. I was just getting into punk, which was really new wave or post-punk, in 1979, aged 13 going on 14, and my mind was both alive to possibilities and a closed shop to anything that I didn’t consider – or which wasn’t handed down to me as – “punk”. This was a both confusing and confirming point at which to be exposed to Joy Division, who had grown out of Manchester’s punk scene and discovered a new seam, all of their own. I didn’t live in Manchester, so I hadn’t seen them on Granada Reports or What’s On. I saw them for the first time on September 15 along with anyone outside of Lancashire, Merseyside and Cheshire: on a national BBC2 youth magazine show called Something Else, playing Transmission. You’ve seen the clip. They talk these days of “game-changers” – they talk of them way too much, actually – but this was, well, something else.
Because of the seismic cultural impact of that appearance – this haunted-looking young man Ian Curtis, who’d been on the cover of the NME at the start of the year (I’d just started buying it, my first grown-up comic), throwing shapes that had no geometric name, and repeating this mantra, “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio“, while three other men, who looked like they’d just clocked off as juniors in an office, one of them with a beard, created this low, menacing industrial rumble around him – I have been tempted to name Transmission as the pinnacle of this short-lived band’s career. It is difficult to beat for a national TV debut. But then they came back on and did She’s Lost Control.
It’s weird to watch the clips again now, as I remember the appearance in black and white. It’s conceivable that I watched the show on the portable TV upstairs if Mum and Dad had been watching the news at the same time, but then again, it might just be that Joy Division, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan – and indeed, Kevin Cummins’ Manchester – will always exist in black and white. They certainly looked at home in grey shirts. But it was the one at the back, flop-fringed Stephen Morris, whose work on She’s Lost Control proved the real revelation for the budding teenage drummer, which I was at that time (I’d talk Mum and Dad into buying me a secondhand snare and cymbal off a kid at school called … Steve Morris), as he used synthesised drum pads, or “syndrums”, to create that double-handclap and space-age boink signature, and the BBC cameras allowed me a good, close look at him doing it. I was mesmerised, by his dilligence behind the kit, and by the sound he made. I was less interested in guitars, which is why I won’t have noticed that the song’s riff is played on the bass, by the man with the beard. It’s radical in so many ways.
The lyric, though, is its killer. We didn’t know then but know now that Curits was not well, and under enormous pressure at home. Within nine months, he would be dead by his own hand, sealing Joy Division’s legend forever and making their next few releases, notably and most painfully Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere, whose b-side was She’s Lost Control – eerily posthumous. (When the austerely packaged offcuts double Still came out in 1981, I was so excited to hear new material, I got my friend Dave to play me The Only Mistake down the phone, as he got hold of the LP first. That was another contender for their entry in The 143.) In death, Joy Division became a chart act, and as New Order, they emerged a pop group to rival any other in this country. But the strict Joy Division canon comprises Unknown Pleasures and Closer. And while I am a sucker for the funereal grandeur of the latter, it’s the first album that grips the throat and warms the blood (even if Peter Hook thinks it sounds like Pink Floyd and – ironically – feels that the post-punk Joe Meek, Martin Hannett, had “coloured in” their black and white sound).
Back to the lyric of She’s Lost Control. Like “dance, dance, dance, dance, dance“, it has a mantra, the title, which appears as every other line, emphasised as “she’s lost control again,” in case you didn’t get the grinding, terrifying repetition of this female protagonist’s seizures. The details Curtis adds evoke the mundanity of the symptoms of mental and physical decline: “Confusion in her eyes that says it all … she’s clinging to the nearest passer by … she gave away the secrets of her past … and a voice that told her when and where to act.” The man, ill himself, is a poet of the cracks in the human psyche. There but for the grace of some delicate chemical equilibrium, go we all: “And she turned around and took me by the hand and said, ‘I’ve lost control again.’” As fellow Salfordian John Cooper Clarke intones in Beasley Street, “disaster movie stuff.”
It seems quite clear that it’s the singer himself who has “screamed out kicking on his side” and “lost control again.” He certainly expressed himself in many different ways and walked upon the edge of no escape.
Ian Curtis may not have been here for long, but his artistry and suffering cast a long shadow. View those Something Else clips, even if, like me, you think you’ve seen them enough times. Look deep into his wild, raw insomniac’s eyes and hear his cry for help.
And don’t forget to give thanks to Sumner, Hook, Morris and Hannett, without whom, we might not have known that young man’s genius.